Death knell will toll for high street shopping as e-economy takes off

Simon Moores


I call it "the digital dilemma". The quiet seaside town where I spent this Christmas is under threat. The...

Simon Moores


I call it "the digital dilemma". The quiet seaside town where I spent this Christmas is under threat. The sudden and almost magical arrival of two out-of-town shopping malls is ripping the heart out of small businesses in the area.

At the same time, these larger, well-established department store operators are themselves in danger, not from bigger competitors but from another threat, that of online shopping. Indeed, one of the largest and oldest retail businesses in the area doesn't even have a Web site or e-mail.

While most corporate interests appear to focus on new "virtual" businesses - worth any sum you may wish to imagine - the greatest challenge faced by our "nation of shopkeepers" is the transitional and evolutionary nature of commerce itself.

The danger I foresee is that the rapid spread and integration of digital TV and the Internet will, in its own way, challenge the existence of even the largest high-street businesses. This phenomenon will mirror the way in which the introduction of well established traders into shopping malls tolled the knell for small businesses in town centres.

The challenge of managing this process of change will, this month, fall on the shoulders of one man, who was until recently our high commissioner to Australia.

Alex Allan is the prime minister's own appointment to the role of "e-envoy" and few will envy the scale of his task. Perhaps a better title might be "master of change", because that's what he is.

In the first few weeks of the 21st century, there exists a chronic imbalance between the old and the new orders of business-to-business and business-to-consumer trading.

What's required is a path that will allow market forces to operate unhindered, while at the same time act as a thermostat of social change. This is a compromise, of course, and Allan and his team will be exploring all the options, searching perhaps for the third way of managing an Internet economy.

Simon Moores is chairman of the Windows NT Forum and Java Forum

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